The American Experiment

South and West: From a Notebook BY Joan Didion. Knopf. Hardcover, 160 pages. $21.

The cover of South and West: From a Notebook

FUNNY THAT EVERY PLACE Joan Didion visits is falling apart. "A problem of making connections," her first column for Life, begins with a note on why her three-year-old daughter cannot, in Hawaii, go to the beach: "She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected." In "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," her essay on Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love, the phrase Summer of Love is never used, nor is the word love, except in ironic quotes from kids who know nothing. Bad trip occurs three times. Feel good once: "The Warehouse, which is where Don and a floating number of other people live, is not actually a warehouse but the garage of a condemned hotel. . . . I always feel good there." Imagine being Joan Didion's travel agent. Better, imagine Joan Didion filling out old hotel comment cards. How did you enjoy your stay? "Does not apply."

Between trips in the late 1960s, she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, worked as screenwriters in what she called "the last extant stable society," the studio system, but lived in a part of Hollywood that was going downhill. When she returned from Los Angeles to teach writing where she'd studied it twenty years earlier, at the University of California, Berkeley, she drifted quickly from the organized campus to Telegraph Avenue, where the tatty shops and open drug deals represented a "tropism toward disorder" that none of her colleagues, who were busy explaining Middlemarch and social movements, wished to discuss. She began to feel for hot and moist climates and went again to Hawaii, also to Florida, often to Latin America. Her Colombian report, "In Bogotá," begins by imagining the capital as lambent with emeralds, smelling of roses and Madeira consommé, a mirage cracked the instant she looks out from the new Bogotá Hilton to see "a shantytown of packing-crate and tin-can shacks, where a small boy . . . plays listlessly with a yo-yo." The beginning of her 1983 book, Salvador,reported over a fortnight in the third official year of civil war, describes a ghost country in which "no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse." The sound is of droning cicadas. The tourist site is a body dump. Even when Didion enters a putative place of respite, the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, she finds that

the high walls of raw concrete bristle with structural rods, rusting now, staining the concrete, sticking out at wrenched and violent angles. The wiring is exposed. Fluorescent tubes hang askew. The great high altar is backed by warped plyboard. . . . On the afternoon I was there the flowers laid on the altar were dead.

One locale she does not tend to see as entropic is the city of New York, which, in the eight years she lived there, declined to go bad fast enough for her style. The twenty-nine-year-old Didion simply could not walk into another party or another editor's office and note that the carnations in the cut glass vases were alive, that the sky in the window portended little and the skyscrapers stood no chance of collapse. She may have said goodbye too soon. Manhattan as it was in the 1970s would have felt more like home to a Didion in her later thirties, or at least she could have used the ad hoc bombings for a plot in a novel or the Richard Hell album Blank Generation as the title and theme of an essay.

"Joan Didion" appears as a character ("Call me the author") in Democracy, technically the finest of Didion's novels, published the year of Reagan's reelection and George Orwell's best-selling nightmare. Democracy here is a strewment of pins on a map, and the pins are already loose, the map out of date. The heroine, Inez, has a daughter with a heroin problem; a husband of twenty years who is a senator; and a lover of twenty-three years, Jack, who is a spy and a rogue. Inez leaves the husband for Jack, who tracks down the daughter in Saigon (long story) and dies under unreportable circumstances in Jakarta. The story rests in Kuala Lumpur, where "Didion" finds herself "sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag."

This is the same book Didion first tried to write as Angel Visits, "a very light novel, all surface, all conversations and memories and recollections of some people in Honolulu who were getting along fine." (Didion is funny when you're not expecting it; then again, you're never expecting it.) She abandoned this effort when it became clear that she preferred, she told the Paris Review, "the dark journey" to "the golden mean." Her model was Joseph Conrad's Victory, and her modus operandi was structuralist: Any idea she had about democracy would be conveyed in her syntax. A line like "The heart of Africa was an enrichment facility," for example, is missing the word uranium, so that you hear enrichment and think good! before filling in the nuclear implications and thinking bad. The meaning outweighs the sentence. The meaning may be that at the center of the nation-state is the high probability of death.

Safer, then, to run to the edges, as Didion does. No elite is more coastal than she. Reading The White Album in full for the first time in years, I saw that what once seemed a coolness that precluded the need for opinions is perhaps what Mary McCarthy called, in her review of Democracy, a "stunned aversion from thought." Didion is useless in a maelstrom, out of her intellectual range in a women's movement led by Shulamith Firestone, unable to witness a press conference with Huey P. Newton and hear a question as simple as "Isn't it true that racism got its start for economic reasons?" without finding it all a "weird interlocution" and complaining that the fluorescent light in the room hurts her eyes. Yet when she loiters or toils in a Los Angeles she calls "the invisible city," talking to gambling addicts in Gardena, befriending a Mexican orchid-grower before his greenhouse burns down, observing "casual death" in biker films at drive-ins, eavesdropping on desperate affairs in Encino piano bars, there arises a conviction that no one else does see what Didion sees, or that if she didn't see it, neither would we. Her performative empiricism (only what is describable is true) is hard to distinguish, in effect as in theory, from a pure and almost purifying solipsism (the limits of one's language are the limits of the world). Work keeps the mind clean, as I learned at age fifteen from Heart of Darkness.

Joan Didion, Los Angeles, 1970. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library; © Regents of the University of California.
Joan Didion, Los Angeles, 1970. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library; © Regents of the University of California.

THE SOUTH IN SOUTH AND WEST, a complement of notebooks kept by Joan Didion on reporting trips to the Gulf Coast and San Francisco in 1970 and 1976, respectively, and published together this spring, is as close to America's heart as Didion has gotten. (Once, to find "the abstraction lately called Middle America," she went to a civics convention in Santa Monica, an hour from her house.) A message from her southern ex-lover, in which every sweet-and-low line begins with "I guess you think," concludes with "I guess you think Southerners are somewhat anachronistic," and we guess she transcribes it in her notebook because her notion is to prove the man wrong: No, she thinks, "the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been [for some years] what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center." We know that the center has not held much promise for Didion, or for her subjects. We do not know whether proximity will change her attitude, nor are there prizes for guessing. She begins her trip in New Orleans, where

bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. . . . Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. . . . The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.

Operatic. Childlike. Predestinarian. I doubt that what Didion describes here is in fact a place known as New Orleans. I have suspected her of owning several knives. "Los Angeles Notebook," collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, quotes the LA noirist Raymond Chandler on nights determined by Santa Ana winds: "Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen." In her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer,the "carving knife" becomes a "boning knife" for Charlotte, who uses it to "make the necessary incision in the trachea of [a man] who was choking on a piece of steak at the Jockey Club," and whose skill is given a sinister twist by a later mention of a blade: "If I went to New Orleans with you," Charlotte says to her ex-husband, "I would end up murdering you. I would take a knife and murder you. In your sleep." (Sure enough, in the notes on New Orleans, Didion writes that she and the ex-lover understood each other best "when once I tried to kill him with a kitchen knife.") In Democracy the can becomes could, to wit: "The past is prologue to the present, the options remain open here. Anything could happen."

Between 1967 and 1984, there is in Didion no more can or will than there is love—her dominant mood is conditional. A subdominant mood comes in at the end of that first, famous column for Life, when she resigns herself to "watching for a tidal wave that will not come." Overnight, a woman who, as a staffer at Vogue, wrote assured moral treatises on strict deadlines and to exact word counts, most aptly in the case of 1961's "On Self-Respect," has aged into one who has fits and starts things she won't finish. "Anything could happen" is a half note of optimism in a novel written during a "long spell of suspended judgment," but the other half note is not of suspense. Suspense is a pattern of avoidance when it comes to expectations. Hence the greater irreality and many banal thrills of Didion's nonfiction, filled with things that should be or must be but are not necessarily being done. "I must walk Bourbon or Royal to Charters, I must walk Charters to Esplanade. . . . I should not miss St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytère, the Cabildo," she notes in New Orleans, to no end. Taking the side roads to Mississippi, she and Dunne follow a sign saying E. Ansley Estates, but

rain was beginning to fall, and as we passed a pond a dozen or so boys were climbing out of the water and into two cars. One felt the rain had spoiled their day, and they would be at loose ends, restless. The cliché of the lonely road in the South took on a certain meaning here. The road was scattered occasionally with armadillo shells. The rain continued. The boys and their cars disappeared. We did not find E. Ansley Estates, or any settlement at all.

What she finds outside Biloxi, Mississippi, is a tourist attraction called the Reptile House, where she buys herself a towel emblazoned with the Confederate flag. Showing that these "notes" are more than first impressions, she writes, at an unspecified later point in time, which is to say after enough time to have reconsidered this purchase, that the souvenir "is ragged and gray now and sits in my linen closet in California amid thick and delicately colored Fieldcrest beach towels, and my child prefers it to the good ones." The only excuse would be that she is questioning, after James Baldwin, the learned and easy reflexes that signal "the good ones" among the elites, and is pointing out the shallow collusion of good or bad politics and good or bad taste. The child, in her child morality, prefers the authentic and indelicately colored rags to the proper materials that lace and code her mother's most-read essays.

In Meridian, Mississippi, we get a flash of the "very light" mood, the prospective Angel Visits style, as Didion writes up an afternoon talk and night drive with the owner of a black-community-radio station, and ditto in Clarksdale, as she writes up a Sunday lunch with a portrait artist whose subjects include Richard Nixon's daughters and William Faulkner. These pieces could as easily be "Talk" stories by Jamaica Kincaid for the New Yorker, except that they are not, of course, set in New York, and except for one thing that follows the visit with the radio man. Didion goes to a doctor who looks at her injured rib and asks if she is traveling alone, and when she says no, she is here with her husband, she thinks that this "did not sound exactly right, either, because I was not wearing my wedding ring." She does not explain why she is not wearing the ring, or how she hurt the rib, except by "fall[ing] . . . in a hotel room in New Orleans," which does make it seem like the missing word here is apart.

Nathaniel Rich, in his introduction to South and West, suggests that the book is a rare blueprint to Didion's perfect copy. I don't think this is true, or that rare. In Democracy the woman we are to call the author says, "Let me establish Inez," and "See it this way." She says, "I can define exactly how winter comes to Honolulu," before doing so. She infers an event in Colorado Springs and another in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before saying "strike Ann Arbor" and "strike Colorado Springs," revising with ink and not Wite-Out, playing judge and not jury (a judge may strike testimony from the record but a jury can't strike it from memory, though the jury of Didion's characters, who aren't fond of remembering, tries). These are not false starts but instructions that, until you try to follow them, are simple. "I am resisting narrative here," she says.

Didion once said that F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon was not only an unfinished novel but an unjudgeable one, because "we had no way of knowing how Fitzgerald might have finished it." She was relaying an argument had over dinner, and was, by her own account, the "only one of us at the table that evening [who] saw a substantive difference between writing a book and making notes for it, or 'outlining it,' or 'laying it out.'" This difference, between the planning and the sinking into habit, is akin to the difference between Hemingway's sentences, which Didion copied in order to learn how to write, and Didion's own. A pianist learns to play by sight, then by ear, then to her own ear, and the mistakes she makes along the way, the hesitations and aleatory beats, are key to the development of her style. Didion writes, in the notebook kept in San Francisco in 1976, that she was never dressed like other girls growing up: "I thought of them as 'conventional,' but I envied them secretly. I was doomed to unconventionality."

The West in South and West is an old destination for anyone who's read any Didion. She never wrote the piece on the South, or any piece on the South, yet though she did not write the piece she was assigned on the trial of Patty Hearst, she did eventually write an essay about her, collected in After Henry, and a somewhat personal history of California, called Where I Was From. We know she pays attention to snakes and likes gold silk organza. We have been told so often that she no longer has fixed ideas that it's anticlimactic to see how long-ago and odd these fixed ideas are, for instance an idea held by her middle school classmates: "We find Joan Didion as a White House resident / Now being the first woman president." Remembering only the "failures and slights and refusals"of her teenage years, she allows that, in fact, she was always an editor or a president, a member of all the right clubs, a recipient of more prizes and scholarships than her "generally undistinguished academic record" would seem to permit. (She adds proudly and a bit contradictorily, "merit scholarships only: I did not qualify for need.") She believed that she "would always go to teas," because she had not yet seen the termites in the teacups.

There are, as I learned at age twenty from Women in Love, "three cures for ennui: sleep, drink, and travel." By her own account and by the accounts of some who knew her in Los Angeles, Didion drank enough and took enough pills that I would believe she went to rehab when she said, in The White Album, that she had gone to a psych ward. (Dunne said the speed and the benzos as well as the barbiturates were prescribed for migraines, never mind the contraindication, and who knows, but I do think temporary insanity would have seemed less embarrassing to Didion, more appropriate to the period, than dipsomania. She does not fit, after Hemingway or Fitzgerald, the narrative of the intemperate writer, but maybe she was only resisting it.) She preferred working through sickness (or a hangover) to sleeping it off, and when she was finishing a novel, she slept in the room where she worked. Yet the best of these cures was travel, or it produced her best writing. Away from the centers that so unnerved her, she saw that what really did not apply, or did not travel, was the American idea about America. Democracy at home was a fragile agreement held in place by filamentary processes. What was said to be for the common good was not what was truest, or even worth seeing, about a country. As for what is true about Didion, it is more changeable than her image, but the image I have of her I hold. She is a woman wasted in a navy silk slip, no bra, no shoes, with a glass of iceless gin and a child upstairs in a suite, sitting at a piano in the lobby of a recently grand hotel, condemned to play the only song she knows by heart, in another lobby, another emptying hotel, a song that says—well, you know what it says.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor in chief of Adult.